Monday morning, at the Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse in downtown St. Louis, attorneys representing both sides in the Shirley Phelps v. City of Manchester lawsuit answered questions and made their case before a full panel of judges of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
No ruling was made at Monday's hearing that comes after a court ruled the city of Manchester's ordinance to ban protests within 300 feet of a funeral was unconstitutional.
In 2010, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, challenged a city of Manchester ordinance restricting protests or pickets at funerals. The Westboro Baptist Church regularly pickets military funerals with signs such as "thank God for dead soldiers."
Manchester city code states “Every citizen may freely speak, write and publish the person's sentiments on all subjects... but no person shall picket or engage in other protest activities, nor shall any association or corporation cause picketing or other protest activities to occur within three hundred feet of any residence, cemetery, funeral home, church, synagogue, or other establishment during or within one hour before or one hour after the conducting of any actual funeral or burial service at that place.”
On Oct. 5, 2011, a three-judge panel ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church and the ACLU, arguing Manchester’s ordinance violated the Westboro's first amendment rights.
Manchester, however, petitioned and was granted an “en Banc” hearing, that is, a full panel of judges in the court of appeals would rehear the case, as opposed to the earlier three-judge panel.
Monday morning, Westboro Baptist Church protesters marched across the street from the federal court as Shirley Phelps, representative and spokesperson of the WBC, members of her family and her attorney entered the building. A group of people opposing the church also held a counter protest.
Inside the courtroom, Attorney Evan Reid, of the St. Louis law firm Lewis Rice & Fingersh which is representing Manchester, was the first one to talk before the 11-judge panel.
Reid argued the city of Manchester had a legitimate interest in protecting families in public funerals from disruptions. Reid said a funeral for a loved one is a special, sacred event because it "occurs only once.”
A judge asked Reid if, according to Manchester’s ordinance, someone could also be prosecuted for quietly holding a sign that says "Jesus loves soldiers.”
Reid argued the ordinance is content neutral, and it could apply to anyone, even a group such as the Patriot Guard, which often rides motorcycles at military funerals in support of soldiers and carries the American flag.
During his time to speak, ACLU Attorney Anthony Rothert, who represents the WBC, argued the 300 foot restriction is too vague and the ordinance is unconstitutional because it targets a specific religious group.
“There is no secret here the purpose of Manchester’s ordinance was to restrict a specific speech [of the Westboro Baptist Church],” Rothert said.
The hearing lasted less than one hour, and it is not known when the judges will rule on the case. Rothert told Patch a decision could take months or even a year.
Shirley Phelps told Patch she was pleased with the judges’ questions and said she thought the ACLU did a great job representing them. She said cities passing ordinances such as Manchester’s are “wasting their time.”
“They [city officials] are acting against their own interests,” Phelps said. “They have brought horrible wrath on this country.”
The attorney representing the City of Manchester and Manchester's city attorney, Patrick Gunn, have not returned Patch's calls for a comment on Monday's hearing.
Both the State of Missouri and the U.S. Government have filed amicus briefs in support of Manchester.
On Dec. 21, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster filed an amicus brief in support of the city of Manchester. According to the brief, the state of Missouri has a "unique" interest in this case since the state enacted an ordinance, similar to Manchester's, which "protects the sanctity of funeral services."
The Westboro Baptist Church also has a pending case against Koster.
The United States, through U.S. Assitant Attorney General Tony West, also filed an amicus brief on behalf of the city of Manchester.
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